Thursday, April 26, 2012

Divinizing Mary?

“I God, they God, he God: this I will never hide.” (Frauenlob 12)


Even if Frauenlob was just an ordinary minstrel, a comment like this could be considered heretical. Mary as God? Mary as more than just eternal Sapientia, but as divine? This theme can be found throughout his Marienlob, in a manner much more prevalent than before. Consider this example:

“Becoming and unbecoming
start with birth, so I may say:
I am their pure beginning…
I am the Form beyond each form,
drawn from the inmost meaning’s norm,
which was and is and ever shall be blooming” (Verse 17)

Here, perhaps appealing to the educated listener’s knowledge of logic, Mary claims that she not only gave birth to God, but came before God. Oh, Chicken and Egg puzzle, how perplexing you are! Newman, on page 106, also draws our attention to the fact that in Aristotelian theology, forma formarum is a term for God. Then again, this concept of Mary’s divinity is not new. We have already encountered Epiphanius of Salamis, who argued against this Collyridian doctrine in his Panarion. Epiphanius maintains that Mary cannot be a goddess because there is nothing spectacular about a goddess giving birth to God. Basically, if Mary was not human, then there could be no salvation. So what changed? Did Frauenlob, 700 years later, decide to ignore Epiphanius and the Church’s teachings? Did the doctrine of salvation change? Based on Frauenlob’s extensive literary background and rumored ‘doctor of theology’ status, I bet that he knew full well about the Panarion and the history of this complex question. That begs the question, why would he write this? My (educated) guess is that Frauenlob attempted to address the issues of his age. To support this claim, we should look at his fellow ‘poet theologians,’ mainly Hildegard of Bingen and Walter of Wimborne.

Hildegard wrote her Symphonia around 150 years earlier, and it is clear that her interpretation of Marian theology is not quite the same. In her various antiphons, Mary is portrayed more as a conduit for divine light than as divinity itself. Still, there are a couple of intriguing passages. In Antiphon 21, Hildegard writes, “God gazed at you like an eagle staring into the sun,” and in 16, “To a submissive woman the king came bowing.” God is in such awe of Mary’s purity, power and humility! Have we encountered these images of God in reverence of Mary anywhere in the past? Additionally, in Antiphon 12, Hildegard tells us to “Seek the supreme one in the form of a woman surpassing all that God made.”  Hildegard’s descriptions of Mary make it seem like Mary is not quite human. She is an object of divinity, but not explicitly divine. Hildegard’s Mary does not have as much agency as Frauenlob’s Mary, but Hildegard was never one for blatant feminism – she had her legitimacy as a mystic and position as Magistra to think about – and she was writing a century earlier than Frauenlob. Still, Hildegard’s Mary seems much more corporeally liberated than the previous encounters we have had with the eternal virgin.

In Walter of Wimborne’s Ave Virgo Mater Christi, we are presented with a wealth of analogies, from the very ordinary (Mary as a loaf of bread) to the incredibly convoluted (Mary as the pyx of divinity - yes, I looked that word up). Even though Walter was writing in a completely different geographical location, his depiction of Mary is very similar to Hildegard’s and Frauenlob’s. But is Walter’s Mary divine? His virgin certainly has a significant amount of agency, more agency than Hildegard’s virgin. She actively inverts hierarchies, evidenced by her success in “join[ing] God with mud and the lowest with the highest” (Verse 9). Mary also seems to have some supernatural qualities. Walter describes Mary in Verse 18 as the “rainbow of divinity.” And when she “respond[s] with practiced words” (Verse 113) at the Incarnation, does that mean that she had some higher knowledge that she would be chosen to carry the Son of God?  Walter’s description of Mary’s physical presence hints at Mary’s godliness:

“Hail, beautiful through whom, in whom
the light of beautiful Divinity
rises near us.” (Verse 94)

Even if you argue that Jesus is the Divinity mentioned in the verse above, can he shine both in Mary’s womb and through Mary? Is a certain amount of ambiguity intentional? What about Verse 140, which describes how Mary came into being:

“Hail, in whose form
Nature more powerful than art
exhausted her talent,
but when Nature failed
the art of God the Father
completed the task.”

It seems as though Walter’s Mary is not exactly divine, but she, like Hildegard’s Mary, is definitely not just Nature’s art, not just a human.

Based on the works of Frauenlob, Walter and Hildegard, I assume that some people in the 11th and 12th centuries worshipped Mary as a fourth member of the Trinity. Did these poets temper their messages so that they would be able to continue their art? If they did temper their messages, what does it say about the strength and size of the Marian-focused Christian population? Or the power of a folk theology versus a doctrinal theology?

It may be true that I am over-interpreting certain passages in these poems. Mary is not consistently given aspects of the divine, by any means. I merely wanted to point out that she was described in the same terms and given powers similar to either one or all three members of the Trinity. I am curious to see if Mary continues to be divinized in this way, and when this extreme adoration of Mary will lessen. I bet our friend Martin Luther will have something to do about it! 



  1. CB: I like the pace of your post. Could suggestions of Frauenlob’s “divinization” of Mary be a case of taking stylized language too literally? For comparison, though I’m not sure that Walter of Wimborne’s Virgin “join[ing] God with mud and the lowest with the highest” amounts to “actively invert[ing] hierarchies,” I do think that the phrase is not dissimilar from the intentions of Frauenlob’s lines. And is this really that far removed from the explanations of what was wrought in Mary’s womb in the earliest (post-scriptural) writings we have explored?

    Further, I take Walter’s verse 140 to be speaking to God’s (p)art in the Incarnation through Mary’s natural form/womb, which would have been “exhausted” by the task without the help of divinity.

    (For me, Frauenlob’s Mary as Wisdom, present at the creation seemed much more potentially fraught because of resonances with pagan traditions.)

    In short, I agree with your final paragraph. And if your intention was to stir the pot with an eye towards the Reformation, you seem to have provided a depiction that serves those purposes.

  2. You are right: these are not easy images to make sense of! Just as a point of detail, it is highly unlikely that either Hildegard or Walter or Frauenlob knew anything about the Collyridians (they are never mentioned after Epiphanius [d. 403, which makes him more like 900 years before Frauenlob], while other heresies often are). So we need to go somewhere else for the source of their imagery. Neither, however, were any of the three ever remotely suspected of heresy (although Hildegard was often considered somewhat obscure). Prof. Newman would argue (in her God and the Goddesses) that poets were less likely to be called on their imagery than formal theologians, but my sense is that medieval Christians were more flexible in their ability to think about the divine than we often give them credit for. The one great heresy of the period--Catharism--is a case in point: the Cathars denied the reality of the Incarnation in much the same way as the early Gnostics; they considered created, material reality corrupt and sought to escape from it by starving themselves to death (i.e. not taking in more matter). In context, this makes Hildegard, Walter, and Frauenlob more than orthodox: after all, they are positively championing the reality of the Incarnation, God's working in matter through Mary. This is the harder doctrine, not that of the Cathars. That we find it near heretical, I think, says more about our take on the Incarnation than it does about Hildegard's, Walter's, or Frauenlob's. As a thought.


    1. "Mary as God?"
      Your analysis leads you to "to point out that she was described in the same terms and given powers similar to either one or all three members of the Trinity. I am curious to see if Mary continues to be divinized in this way..."
      So far, we have largely taken for granted that Mary Goddess is an unorthodox position. As I shall argue, or at least briefly present here, Mary as purely divine does not at all entail compromise of the view of the Trinity or monotheism.
      The twelfth century has famously been called the “Boethian Age” (aetas Boetiana, Marie-Dominique Chenu, La théologie au douzième siècle [Paris 1957] chap. 6) on account of the widespread reading and influence of the late antique Roman Senator, philosopher and Christian, Boethius (d 525). Boethius’ works, especially his ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ and ‘Theological Tractates,’ were read by almost every educated and theologically-minded student. By keeping Boethius before our eyes in reading twelfth century texts, we can gain insight into their views of humanity, divinity and clear up the appearance of idolatry.
      In Consolation III.prose X, Boethius concludes that God is “full of the most high and perfect good.(…deum summi perfectique boni esse plenissimum, 35).” Also, true [human] happiness is the perfect good. (36) “Therefore” Boethius concluded, “true happiness must reside in the most high God (beatitudinem in summo deo sitam esse necesse est, 37-8).”
      Simply, God or divinity is human happiness. (“That must be the highest happiness which is the highest divinity;” quare ipsam necesse est summam esse beatitudinem quae sit summa divinitas, 77-78). (This is also Augustine’s view.)
      What do we make of a happy man, then? A happy is happy by “acquisition of happiness.” (84) But “happiness is itself divinity” (85). Therefore, “it is obvious that [happy people] are happy by the acquisition of divinity.” (85-86). Just as a person becomes musical by acquiring musical skill, or becomes just by acquiring justice (as a moral habit), “so by the same argument they must, when they have acquired divinity, become gods.”(86-88)
      “Therefore every happy man is a god, though by nature God is one only: but nothing prevents there being as many as you like by participation.” (Omnis igitur beatus deus, sed naturā quidem unus; participatione vero nihil prohibet esse quam plurimos. 88-90)
      Here then, we have it. Humans becoming happy (which Boethius largely understands in an Aristotelian fashion of habituated excellences) become gods. Let us remember that Boethius was perfectly orthodox in his time and after, wrote tracts against Christological and Trinitarian heresies by pinpointing their logical errors, and never received theological censure of any kind (although Cons. III.meter 10, needed some patching up on a different matter).
      Thus, we have perfectly orthodox backing for saying in a real sense, ‘Mary is a goddess, and you can be one too!’
      How does this work? The importance lies in the emboldened words ‘by participation’ and ‘by nature.’ The key lies in this distinction, to which my colleague DAY, was alluding in class Monday. In short, God has divinity by nature, that is, it is its own source of its own divinity. Others, like humans, are not divine by their nature; they must receive that form of divinity exteriorly. A classic example is a furnace, into which an iron is placed. In classical physics, the fire of the furnace enters into the iron, heating it so as to glow red with fire. However, taken out, the iron will dissipate that fire and return to its natural state. The glowing iron in the fire participates or shares in the fire. The fire, however, is fire by nature; it receives its fire-ness from no other and will only cease to be fire when it is extinguished.
      (While this is a crude illustration based upon outdated physics, the principle is not dependent upon that system of physics and could be illustrated in other ways.)
      (RJP, cont.)

    2. Boethius directly deals with question of participation and nature in his text, “How Substances are good…” or Quomodo substantiae. He outlines how things can have a form by their substance (nature) or have a form by participating that form through another.

      To sum up simply, Mary is a goddess by participating in divinity, through grace, to a higher extent than most humans can or will. However, all saints (that is, all who arrive in heaven) do and so Mary with all the saints could rightly be called gods and goddesses. But this in no way compromises monotheism of the one triune God, whose divinity is through itself.